Letter from Africa: Rites of the dead

A Catholic Mass in Nigeria (Archive shot)

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos pays his last respects.

I love funerals.

It is the only ceremony I know which confronts human beings with the stark reality of the transient nature of the individual and witnesses to the "great leveller".

When I sit at a funeral I look at the sealed coffin.

I think of the body inside - former king or common citizen - and how it has become a decomposed or decomposing mass of tissue and bones which must be put deep inside earth or burnt to ashes for the sake of the living.

Power or position has nothing to do with it.

The "great leveller" has wrenched from the body that - call it spirit or soul - which qualified it to be regarded as a person.

The spirit-person has flown away.

To where - purgatory, hell, paradise or even another territory?

I keep wondering, but I am not in a hurry to find out personally.

Every culture has its answer.

Sleeping on duty

However strong their faith in any religion, my Yoruba people of Nigeria's south-west believe strongly that the spirit of their dead relation has a duty to keep permanent watch over them.

During a Christian funeral in church they sing: "Sleep on, beloved and rest."

Image caption The funeral service for Baroness Thatcher lasted exactly one hour

But as soon as the priests leave the graveside, the mourners surround it and begin to exhort the dead: "Don't you ever sleep-o; take care of all those you have left behind."

When anything unpleasant happens within the family thereafter, the blame is heaped on the hapless dead relation - for sleeping on duty.

I cannot blame the people for having so high an expectation of the dead considering how lavishly they throw their resources - savings and loans - into funerals.

Igbo people of the south-east are no different.

Some years ago someone in Lagos mooted the idea of cremation.

There was furious opposition to the proposals from large sections of the public who believed it against their culture.

Despite the heated debates, the state assembly decided to press ahead with the idea last year and passed a bill allowing voluntary cremations for the first time and making it legal for unclaimed bodies in mortuaries to be cremated.

Dignity and solemnity

When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, I knew that her funeral would not be similar to that in my culture.

In the first place, Britons generally do not have such strong and extensive family bonds as we have here.

Secondly, for the most part they do not have the tradition of serving anything more than a "cuppa" or a miserly glass of wine to funeral guests.

I spent an entire morning glued to BBC World television to witness the baroness's funeral.

It was such a pleasure watching its dignity and solemnity.

Most of the noisy protesters I had seen on TV in the past week stayed off the streets - if only in grudging respect for the dead.

That service was one of the best of such I have ever attended or watched.

The music was glorious, even triumphant.

Politics was resolutely avoided: The Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, said in his sermon: "There is an important place for debating policies and legacy… but here and today is neither the time nor the place."

Image caption FW de Klerk (l) and Mangosuthu Buthelezi (r) attended the funeral - Nelson Mandela was too frail to travel

To me, it was instructive that the only African personality identified by the commentator at the service was former president of apartheid South Africa, FW de Klerk.

While Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a controversial Zulu leader during apartheid and leader of South Africa's opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, was mistakenly identified on Twitter as the late Ray Charles.

From the bidding address by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral to the last strains of the recessional Nunc dimittis by the choir, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace", the service lasted exactly one hour.

Nigerian priests could learn a lot from this timing.

A similar service in Nigeria would not take less than two and a half hours.

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